The Harper’s Ferry Insurrection: Being an Account of the Late Outbreak in Virginia, and of the Trial and Execution of Captain John Brown, Its Hero (Excerpts)
Jesse Ewing Glasgow, Jr., 1860
The following brief memorial of the events which, though in one sense trifling, lately caused the very foundation of the American Union to shake, is little more than a plain account of them, derived from a careful consideration of the newspaper accounts and conversations with some of the parties connected with the affair. In thus embodying them into a narrative, and sending them forth upon the public, it is presumed that but few of the particulars are known, and that there are some who would like to know them in full. To such we would say, that we hope they too may be incited to do something towards securing the coloured man’s freedom and manhood in America – if not in the way Brown attempted to do so, in one against which they can have no conscientious scruples – by sending through some of the anti-slavery societies that exist throughout the country, contributions to keep in a good state of repair and more active service the under-ground railroad that is the means of emancipating thousands yearly.
The summer was just ended, but the autumn leaves had not yet fallen upon the earth, which was still warm with the heat of the preceding season, when, after an absence of three years, the writer of the following pages landed once more on his native shores, the American. Sir Walter Scott in his Lay, says –
“Breathes there a man with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said –
This is my own, my native land.”
I am that man, for never have I felt, never can I feel, that patriotic sentiment towards America which the poet speaks of; but before those who read this avowal pass the poet’s doom upon me, let me tell the reason why this is the case as briefly as possible. It so happened that nature gave me a coloured skin, and on account of this, from infancy up to the time I left America, 18 years, I had to grasp the cold, flinty hand, of what in America was a misfortune punishable as a crime. He who knows not what American prejudice is (and none can fully know except those who have felt it, which is a privilege only enjoyed by an unfavoured many), cannot know what is implied in the above sentence. It is to feel the world cold and unfriendly as soon as you have gained any knowledge of it; it is to have the dews which alight on life’s path evaporated by a precocious, mischievous sun as soon as they have fallen; to have youth’s sparkling fountain rendered insipid and impure, and manhood’s dry or filthy. In short, it is to have life drawn out into innumerable threads by a fell demon who sports with them, and ever and anon, by chance or otherwise, mostly the latter, breaks one. I had suffered this, and I need not say that I was glad to escape a country in which I could not rise to the sovereignty of a man, and to flee to one consecrated not only by the genius of Universal Emancipation, but also by those Christian sentiments that prompt its people to extend their hands to the oppressed of all countries.
It will now be seen why, on entering America again, I felt not patriotic sentiments, but rather feelings of shame, that I had received in another country the kind feelings I should have found in my own. Such is America in the north, though in some States we find this feeling of prejudice less strong than in others, while in one or two there is scarcely any. To the traveler especially, who had just ended a voyage of 14 days, America looked beautiful in the light of a fine day in early autumn; but it was only the beauty of a sarcophagus, its face was fair, but its heart was possessed by a demon. Far away, in the more sunny south at that moment might have been seen millions of human creatures debased into chattel, toiling there very life out for so called masters, under a penalty, at times, worse than death. The influence of the slave power moves in a strong tide-wave over the length and breadth of America; and though occasionally it is checked in its course, it still moves on and on, baneful to all, alike to those who feel its power and to those against whom it is directed. Though the blood of Sumner cried out in stentorian tones from the Senate Chamber, it was not sufficient to save Kansas; and California – ah, shame on thee, California! Thy golden mountains and precious sands will not save thee, nor shall the brightest gems that nestle beneath the bosoms of thy feather and they tube hide thee from shame. Thou hast stripped thy black citizen of all his rights, and thou hast stained thy robes with lasting infamy, by robbing him of his oath and his God-given prerogative to hold and to have the earnings of his own sweat and toil. We tremble for thee when we think of the great wrong thou hast done, and remember that “justice may sleep awhile, but never dies.” And Oregon, ah, Oregon! The cold and cheerless cliffs of thy rocky mountains, pointing ever to the starried canopy of God’s hollow dome, look indignantly upon thee, and the Pacific’s deep blue waves murmur dolefully as they kiss thy shore, because thou, in thy legislative capacity, hast sought to pollute thy soil with the unpaid toil of the slave!
America has become, by its iniquity in slaveholding, a land of insurrections. Tread upon a worm and it will turn; and shall man do less when trodden upon? He will turn, and that turn will, like that of the giants under Ætua, make the lava overflow, and calcine oppressors and their vineyards. But the late movement at Harper’s Ferry was not that of the slaves, their rising was only counted upon after a strong foot hold had been obtained in their midst by those who were their friends. Little did I think on entering America, that such exciting times were near, when the south was to quake with fear on account of a handful of men; little did I think that ere I would leave it again, there would be placed on its escutcheon one other foul blot, in causing to be executed one whose only fault was on virtue’s side, who will ever live in the eyes of many as a martyr and hero.
Madame Roland, while being carted to the guillotine, exclaimed, “Liberty, what crimes are done in thy name!” Ridiculous and absurd as it appears to us, the people of the South hold slaves in the name of liberty, and Brown was executed in Virginia, because he sought to abridge the liberty of her citizens in attempting to prevent them from holding slaves. Slavery, like all tyrants, lives in a constant alarm, and it is fear for the stability of his throne that goads him on to commit many crimes. He dwells in a castle, which he has in vain tried to render impregnable. In vain has he dug trenches around it, and placed sentinels wherever he thought they would be most useful; a foe always finds means to attack it, and deceive the vigilance he has established. Even his castle gates were passed by Brown, the audacious hero, and one dreary morning he was awakened out of a troubled sleep, and startled with the overwhelming news that an enemy had got within the very walls of his castle, and had entrenched himself in one of the armouries. How that tyrant’s knees did quake for a while! He imagined all sorts of horrors, even the knife at his throat, and the ball in his heart, while his men were capturing the intruder; and after that was done, he could not rest until he saw the conspirator, robber, and assassin, as he called him, dangling on a gallows, which sight has ever since, and probably ever will haunt him. Conscience, whose still small voice may be hushed amid the tumult of the evil passions raging in the bosom, will, at a moment little dreamed of, aided by some circumstance, be heard above them all; but no longer is it a monitor, it is now a judge passing a sentence more severe than of death. We have narrated the circumstances that gave voice to the tyrant slavery’s conscience, and are sorry to add further, that it was scoffed at, and treated with contempt and scorn, for by redoubling vigilance and caution, he thinks he can yet make his castle a safe place of residence. And now a word about Brown. To achieve everything he wished in reference to the condition of his down-trodden fellow mortals, he was the man; but October 16, 1859, was not the hour. This is the reason he was not successful. And why was that not the hour? His plans were not mature enough; he had not taken time to gather sufficient forces, not to collect resources. He had not wherewith, in short, to carry out his deep plot. But on the other hand he did not make quite a failure. He set the North in more direct antagonism to the South – opened the eyes of the South to its true state, causing it to adopt measures for its security, which are calculated to open wider the breach between it and the North, and thus operate against itself. He also infused into many, an anti-slavery spirit which they had not before, and incited other to direct and immediate action against the ‘peculiar institution.’
The character of Brown gives a gloss to his deeds that will not fail to attract to them the eyes of posterity. That he had numerous sympathisers in the North, was proved on the day of his execution; for while the tragical event was occurring at Charlestown, others of a far different character were happening in nearly every northern city. Meetings of sympathy and prayer were held, when the impressiveness of the occasion was manifested in tears and sobs and groanings of spirit. In Philadelphia, at a large meeting held in its largest hall, when the hour arrived that had been appointed for the execution, a bell was rung. As the death knell fell upon the ears of the multitude of four thousand, the heart of each seemed tosink with a mighty load; and solemn, grief-stricken countenances, indicated the greatest sympathies for him whose thread of life had just been cut by impious hands. Who after reading these statements will say Brown has failed? – or who will not say that Virginia has not failed in her attempt to render his death ignominious?
It is not the scaffold, it is the crime that dishonours the man. Brown to every sane person with a heart says in the emphatic language of Burke, “The only charge against me is, that I have pushed the principles of benevolence and justice too far – farther than a cautious policy would warrant, and farther than the opinions of many would go along with me.”
Of those brave heroic men who have at various times risen almost from obscurity, to take prominent rank in an army, having freedom as its watch-word, none perhaps deserve more praise than does John Brown of Osawatomie. Wallace, Tell, L’Ouverture, and Washington, have all received much of served eulogy, and their names have been rendered gloriously immortal in the annals of history, and by tradition for their devotion to the great cause of liberty; but on the occasion when each figured, it was peculiarly his own cause; which prevents their labours from appearing so disinterested as those of Brown. They were patriots – he was more; he was a philanthropist and reformer. His fate and the way he met it, throw another halo of glory around his memory, for he was a martyr – a sacrifice offered up on the altar of slavery. But though dead, he still lives and ever will – to give constant alarm to the consciences of his assassinators – to incite other to the great work [text missing] it was the chief object of his life to accomplish. He has established [text missing] school of anti-slavery philosophy, which will, as long as there [text missing] be zealously supported.
In 1860, shortly before his death, Jesse Ewing Glasgow, Jr. wrote an account of John Brown's unsuccessful raid on Harper's Ferry and subsequent execution. The excerpts provided above demonstrate Glasgow's sympathy for Brown and anti-slavery efforts in America. He also levies criticisms against the place of African Americans in the United States, and compares his treatment in his home to his experiences in Scotland.
Image: "The Harpers Ferry Insurrection: Being An Account of the late Outbreak in Virginia, and of the trial and execution of Captain John Brown, its hero," Historical Society of Pennsylvania in The Library Company of Philadelphia [Ap], Historical Society of Pennsylvania.